We were duped. Many of those retired generals, lieutenant colonels, and other decorated military analysts appearing on network and cable television shows are part of a massive Pentagon spin operation, according to a recent New York Times investigation.
These former military officers are not as independent or as objective as they are portrayed. They are feeding the public the Bush administration line just as they have been encouraged to do. The shilling then bought them plum access to the Pentagon that could be traded on later, giving them a leg up in securing large military contracts for their companies and clients.
The Pentagon's enablers in this propaganda campaign were network and cable news operations that allowed this theater to pass as arm's-length analysis by failing to investigate the potential conflicts of interest. Maybe news analysts don't have to follow the same rules as journalists, but when they turn out to be largely in the business of helping military contractors gain Defense Department contracts, they are irreparably compromised. These former military officers were unlikely to give a fair reading of the war in Iraq when their corporate clients were paying huge sums for friendly Pentagon access so they could win business off the war.
The Pentagon says it is suspending this program pending an internal review. Last week, 41 House members called on the Defense Department's inspector general to investigate to determine if high-ranking Pentagon officials were authorized to operate a program aimed at deceiving the public.
As the New York Times reported, the department organized dozens of military analysts as a way to shape public perceptions of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. The commentators would be sent on trips to Iraq and Guantanamo paid for by the Pentagon, given tightly prescribed briefings and follow-up talking points. They were often given a skewed picture of how events were unfolding — far more positive than the reality being reported by journalists on the ground.
The newspaper quotes the Pentagon's own internal documents that refer to these analysts as "message force multipliers" who could be counted on to offer up the administration's "themes and messages" to the general public "in the form of their own opinions."
Anyone who departed from the script risked being cut off. The New York Times quoted Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, a CBS military analyst and defense industry lobbyist, who said the response to sustained administration criticism was, "you'll lose all access."
Not all the blame should not be laid at the Pentagon's door. Television and other major news outlets that allowed themselves to be used failed in their gatekeeper function.